Intrigued by a great recent used LP find, a compilation from a group called the Louisiana Aces (“Cajun Hank Williams?” Yes please!), I took it upon myself to see if I could dig up a little more American folk music with a unique regional flavor. The Aces record was a sort of revelation for me: I’ve listened to a lot of old country, and a little bit of Cajun music, but the music on this record I bought was such a wonderful and surprising blend of the two. I know that Hank sang in French a little on his classic “Jambalaya,” but for the most part I’ve always associated French lyrics with the chic sounds of Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot, so it was a real treat to hear some honky tonk in French. What else was lurking in the isolated rural music that music critic Greil Marcus famously referred to as “The Old, Weird America?”
The Louisiana Aces record turned out to be a great starting point for investigating new sounds because it was put out by Arhoolie records, a small label that puts out all kinds of regional music and that, more importantly to my search, happens to be well represented in a library database called American Song.
American Song gets my vote for “best kept secret” here at CLP. There is a lot to love about this database — with nothing but a library card and a computer connected to the Internet, you can stream over 120,000 tracks that represent virtually every flavor of American music, from Appalachian hymns to Zydeco. There are a bunch of notable labels represented — Arhoolie as I mentioned above, plus Folkways, Rounder, Document, to name a few — and full reproductions of album covers, liner notes, and other explanatory text. If you spend a lot of time in front of a computer, dip in to American Song or any one of several other streaming audio services offered by the Library.
Note: Because American Song requires a library card login, links to music from this post will go to the landing page for the streaming music databases, where you can click on American Song and log in using your library card number to access these songs. I know, Spotify it ain’t, but what it lacks in convenience it makes up for in depth, free-ness, and being a part of a sustainable business model for these small labels.
A quick search for Cajun music turned up some great old country music from Louisiana with French lyrics. Cajun Honky Tonk is absolutely essential, as is Cajun Champs (Arhoolie 327) and one called Harry Choates: The Fiddle King of Cajun Swing (Arhoolie 380), which we happen to have in CD. Another one, Cajun String Bands: The 1930’s: Cajun Breakdown (Arhoolie 7014) got me thinking that perhaps old Hank should be remembered as the non-Cajun D.L. Menard.
I love this stuff, especially because it’s such a product of the convergence of cultures at a particular time and place. By the time rock and roll artists picked and chose which elements of pre-rock music they would include in their new commercial format, a lot of this regional flavor was left behind, likely because it didn’t have the broad appeal for national airplay.
So what other peculiar takes on American folk music are represented in American Song? There are surely too many to list here, but I’ll point you to some of my favorites.
The Diddley Bow
Nothing speaks more about peoples’ inherent need to make music than the widespread practice of creating homemade instruments out of discarded materials, particularly by poor people in the rural South. For a great example, check out Napolean Strickland’s Key to the Bushes Blues, the first track on Bottleneck Blues (Testament 5021). Strickland backs up his vocals using a one-stringed instrument known as a diddley bow, made of broom wire and snuff bottles, and played with glass bottle as a slide. (There’s a CD in the collection of the same title. I’m sure it’s a great CD but it’s not the same record as the one on American Song.)
It may have seemed for a moment around the middle of last century that yodeling would become a fixture in popular music. Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Snow, and Lefty Frizzell all incorporated yodels into songs. But while some enthusiasts have carried the torch into some more recent recordings (Merle Haggard has been known to yodel, albeit on a Jimmie Rodgers cover), I think that element of pre-rock music will sadly never become mainstream, although I wouldn’t put it past Kanye to give it a shot on his next album. Until then, hear ample evidence of the enduring power of the yodel in all sorts of recordings in American Song: Jimmie Rodgers Recordings:1927-1933 (JSP Records), Gene Autry’s Early Sides (JSP), to Wylie and the Wild West’s 1998 release Total Yodel (Rounder 3162). Yo-da-le-heeeee.
Calls and Hollers is, in fact, a distinct sub-genre under folk music, and it’s used to describe a few different types of music, mainly a capella gospel and songs sung by African American workers while doing manual labor. Browsing this genre also brought up a really interesting record, Deep River of Song- Black Texicans: Balladeers and Songsters of the Texas Frontier (Rounder Records, Rounder 11661- 1821- 2). This record was compiled by none other than Alan Lomax, who claims in the liner notes that the recordings are the only record of any participation in the cowboy song tradition by black musicians. It’s incredible stuff, cowboy songs sung by African American cowboys in Texas at the beginning of the 20th Century.
There’s plenty more to love. Do yourself a favor and dig in to the great depths of Americana with American Song.
-Dan, who is considering constructing a Diddley Bow after seeing Jack White build one in a clip from It Might Get Loud.